Photo: Stefano Paltera / For The Los Angeles Times - Literacy coach Tina Renzullo talks with parents and others about plans to resolve Muir High School's seemingly intractable problems.
by Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
"A major component of the proposed fix requir(es) all teachers, administrators and counselors to reapply for their jobs.
The school is in its fourth year of state monitoring because of poor test scores. District officials were able to launch the rehiring plan without approval from the United Teachers of Pasadena. But the union weighed in on how the restructuring would occur."
March 31, 2008 - The statistics at John Muir High School are alarming: five principals in six years and test scores so dismal that the state has been monitoring the Pasadena school for four years. To turn around the troubled school, administrators, teachers and community members are undertaking an ambitious -- and unusual -- effort that includes requiring all teachers and staff to reapply for their jobs.
The rehiring process, the most emotionally difficult piece of the school's reconstitution so far, was completed Friday, but educators predict a tumultuous road ahead.
"It is a school in crises," said Renatta Cooper, a member of the Pasadena Board of Education. "Turning a school around is always very difficult. People are so protective of Muir that the amount of change that is going to have to take place to really change the academic climate at the school is going to make people uncomfortable."
Muir High School, a mission-style complex nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, serves nearly 1,300 students from northwest Pasadena and Altadena. Open as a high school for more than half a century, Muir occupies a sentimental spot in the community, most visible in the large alumni turnout at the annual Turkey Tussle football game between the Muir Mustangs and arch-rival Pasadena High School's Bulldogs.
Demographically, Muir appears roughly similar to the Pasadena Unified School District's other secondary schools. But the school is more racially diverse and its students are more impoverished than those at two of the other three traditional high schools. It has more English-language learners than any of the others. Class sizes are comparable, though Muir has fewer credentialed teachers.
Muir's performance is notably weaker than the city's other schools' on state standardized tests. In 2007, only 7% of Muir freshmen showed proficient or higher skills in math. Three in 10 students at the school drop out, more than double the dropout rate reported by Pasadena High School, nearly three times that reported at Blair International Baccalaureate High School and 10 times that reported at Marshall Fundamental High School.
Muir's problems stem in part from district attendance boundary shifts in 2002 that concentrated lower-income and immigrant families at the school, educators, teachers and others said. That move, which cut back on busing, allows students to attend schools in their neighborhoods.
The district's open-enrollment policy also allows students to freely transfer to other schools, siphoning away high achievers. Under the policy, principals of the other schools can return students to Muir if their performance is subpar. Additionally, when the district's small continuation school, which serves about 300 students with behavioral and other problems, is full, the overflow is sent to Muir.
"It's the town's economic and racial divide that's behind this," said physics teacher David Herman, who gave up his free period this year so his students would be spread among six classes instead of five, to lower class size.
The school developed a reputation as violent, although its students have mostly avoided the large racial brawls that have occurred at some Los Angeles campuses. Gang problems in the surrounding community occasionally trickle onto campus, said Edwin Diaz, superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District.
Meanwhile, after the retirement in 2003 of respected principal Eddie Newman, a succession of administrators shuffled through the school. Some were forced out; others were temporary replacements or left for personal reasons.
"The district did not respond in an urgent manner," Diaz said. "There was a lack of continuity of leadership."
Past attempts at reform, he said, "never really got started. As a result, you have a staff that really didn't see the reason to change."
Being labeled a failure has seeped into school morale. A Jan. 15 article in the student newspaper, the Blazer, begins, "No matter how many times John Muir is under fire for being 'bad', no one can deny that our school Band is one of the best in the state."
Senior Maria Belman, 17, who wrote the article and plans to study history at UCLA in the fall, said the school is unfairly blamed for problems that begin in earlier grades.
"We're trying to be the best we can. When we hear these stories, we question ourselves, whether we're doing enough," she said. "I think people like to pick on us."
A major component of the proposed fix -- requiring all teachers, administrators and counselors to reapply for their jobs -- left teachers believing they were being blamed.
"It was very insulting," said Cynthia Lake, a 1971 Muir alumna who has taught art at the school for 16 years. "I was pretty angry at first, then went through grief, then indignation. Finally, we decided we're going to have to do this."
The school is in its fourth year of state monitoring because of poor test scores. District officials were able to launch the rehiring plan without approval from the United Teachers of Pasadena. But the union weighed in on how the restructuring would occur.
Fifty teachers and five counselors reapplied for their jobs this spring, and nearly 160 people from outside the school applied for positions.
Nine teachers were told Friday that they cannot stay after the school year ends and will be offered teaching jobs elsewhere in the district, said Pasadena Unified spokeswoman Binti Harvey. No decision has yet been made about three others. More than a dozen teaching positions and two counseling jobs will need to be filled.
Teachers were given sealed envelopes containing their status after school on Friday, after pledging not to open them at school. "We all just kind of went our separate ways with the agreement that we would find out later," Herman said.
The interview process was time-consuming, with applicants required to submit thick packets including resumes, portfolios, letters of interest and lesson plans. They also completed online exercises to show how they would react to various school situations and were interviewed by community and school officials.
"It's really to establish a new culture of high expectations and new expectations for how teachers are going to work," Diaz said. "We want to be very, very clear about what expectations are, and we don't want to put a new program into the existing culture and have that program be resisted."
Teachers who are selected must attend a three-week training workshop over the summer and each will receive a $5,000 annual stipend on top of their salaries for three years. In addition, the district received a three-year, $450,000 grant from the Pasadena Community Foundation that will be spent on staff development.
The other key part of the school's reorganization is the creation of five special learning academies, no larger than 300 students each, headed by a team of teachers who will work together One group will be entirely freshmen, and the other four will relate to curricula: environmental science; business; law and public safety; and arts and media.
The academies' goal is to foster closer ties between students and teachers, Diaz said.
Tim Sippel, the improvement facilitator, said the academies will make the curriculum more engaging and potentially reduce the dropout rate.
In the past, students "weren't known by anybody. No one noticed when they stopped coming" to school, he said. "The idea with the small learning community model is to have a core group of teachers work with a core group of students over an extended period of time. It's harder for a student to get lost when students become known more by their name, rather than just one of 180 on [a teacher's] caseload."
The hard work, the superintendent said, is ahead.
At a sparsely attended community meeting Wednesday evening in the school auditorium, two days before the teachers learned their fate, there was a mix of excitement, anxiety and suspicion about the impending changes.
"This school has a lot of history," said Culver City resident Don Holmes, a 1978 graduate who was wearing his varsity letter jacket. "I'm concerned. I've heard a lot of things about the academics" faltering.
Altadena resident Maria Moreno attended the meeting because her family, including her 14-year-old son Adrian, lives in the Muir attendance area. He is in his freshman year at Blair but is failing and in danger of being held back. She worries that he will be sent to Muir.
Though Moreno said her son learns better in smaller settings, she is hesitant to enroll him at Muir. "I'm looking for options. I want to hear what they have to say. But I'm really skeptical," she said.